Indochina

Listen; can you hear the falling bombs?

There they are, up over the crest of the mountain, falling into the valley below. One night, with a crack and a flash, they began to fall, with a metronomic frequency one could set their watch to. Flash. Bang. From over the mountains these great balls of metal fell from the heavens. They whistled, screaming as they fell. Tearing through the clouds before crashing down into the crust of the Earth. Each time they made contact with the soil, a great yellow flash lit up the sky. It were as though the Earth had lungs, infected with yellow. An aurora borealis, surreal in it’s colour and conception. A great yellow cloud. Spewing from the Earth. Men and women alike climb up over the craggy crest of the mountains. They tumble down its steep descent and never return.

A woman named James with dirty, baggy trousers and thin legs sat on the crest of the valley, looking down. Beside her was the man known as Art, with thin sharp shoulders and a gaunt face. He held a notebook in his hand, and the pages of the notebook torn in places and filthy all over. Art removed the thin wire spectacles he usually wore. He rubbed the deep red indentations on the bridge of his nose. Down below in the valley was a smear of red. The river that ran through the land bright red with the blood of dead men a vein rippling through the earth. Soldiers small and busy like ants loading green trucks with supplies. Unloading artillery. The lumbering wheels of the trucks cut great brown gashes in the sides of the mountain. The diesel engines struggled to climb the steep ascent. The girl named James and the man named Art were to climb down the goat track that lead to the encampment below. But they were too tired to go any farther.

It was their job to report on the war. Two reporters deployed as war corespondents the week of the first bombing. Four years earlier their editor had placed them together on a story. Libertarianism in Egypt. They had worked together as a pair ever since. James the photographer, and Art the writer. Prague. Berlin. Jakarta. Wherever it was they went, Art would write the words and James would capture the images. It used to be fun. Now they reported on the falling bombs and the dying people. Ensnared together in the city and in the war and they both could not stand it. But that is war. They had to descend down the mountain and do their work. Instead they sat in silence. Side by side, at the edge of the valley. This war had been playing out for years; it was difficult to say exactly how long. Both James and Art felt tired to the very marrow of their bones, and they had had enough. They should to be working. Instead they sit together on the mountaintop.

James’s camera sat idle beside her. An old Olympus. The camera wasn’t in production anymore. Film difficult to come by. It meant that every shot she took was with calculation and conviction. Her hair, cropped short, like feathers on a baby bird. He could see the outline of her skull. The two people sat on white rocks protruding out from the hillside like craggy teeth in an old man’s head. The boy with the large feet and the girl named James. The girl with the short hair and the elfin face. The girl with the baggy trousers swimming around her thin, strong legs. They had been sitting at the crest for a short while. It felt as though they had been sitting there, silent and observing, forever.

“It’s all so futile,” James said. Her voice interrupted the silence.

“What is?” said Art.

She gestured with her hand, sweeping it out over the valley below. “Everything.”

James fell silent. Art did not press her for more. There was no need for her to extrapolate upon anything. Because he, like she, could feel the weight of his bones suspended in his flesh and in this life. And it could be a bomb, or it could be a silver bullet. Or even a final, muted breath in old age, but death would reach out with a thin finger and claim them as his own. Up and over the mountain, with their pens and pencils and their eyes ever seeing. Unfurling before them was the climax and crash of humanity. The cesspool of tension and fragility that has been stewing for millennia. Meat lumps and the smell of blood singing in the air.

In the silence that surrounded them both, Art felt a sudden need to close the spaces between them. For a moment he wanted to no longer be alone. He reached out and placed his hand on top of her small one, resting on the carpet of sea green grass. He looked at her face, and saw that she was smiling; a small, quiet, almost sad smile. She did not look at him. In another time, in another world, they could have slipped together in life. Holding hands sweating and close. James would have been softer. Longer hair that he could have felt between his fingers and smelt the fragrance of it on her skin. Maybe they would have had a baby girl together. She would teach it to be tough and he would teach it to love the beauty of art. They would have grown old and grey together. Before lying under the grass and the dirt, side by side.

But it was not to be. Despite their closeness, or because of it, they could never have fit together. To start with, there was the issue of the war. Bombs and shells blew people and countries apart. Destroying the inextricably fragile ties between people across the world. It was bordering on rude to harbour emotions when so much was erupting and exploding around them. Yet even if there were peace, it felt to Art as though there were a war raging between the two of them, somehow inside them.

In his own strange way, Art loved James. Against the ridiculous backdrop of the war, they had come to rely upon one another. The girl named James confused him. He had always known that. From their first mission together they had fit together as neat and simple as silver spoons in a drawer. For Art, James had become a single still point in a spinning world. But the world was still spinning. And the bombs fell with ever-increasing frequency and destruction all around them. Both James and Art knew that any moment could tear them apart. Art had long ago reconciled the insanity that resided within him. Acknowledged how her love and presence kept him alive but also made him insane. It was best that there was a war. It was best that there had to be a modicum of tension and professionalism between the two of them. Art feared that one of the casualties he would one day record in his notebook would be the woman next to him.

Through the lens of the camera James could see it was all about to end. The bright flame of humanity snuffed out by its own fickle finger. The only remnants the yellow flickering lights over the mountains. The creeping clouds spewing from the Earth, until that too died out and all would be darkness. She felt the trajectory of life, of all life, hurtling past. A black hole they were being sucked into. And all the past and the future played out before her. She could see that it began in darkness and would end that way, too.

In the deafening silence, the journalist and the photographer saw the soldiers marching below. They saw the small white group of medics carry a stretcher between four men. Upon the stretcher lay a pile of flesh and blood that had once been a person. The wind blew, and both James and Art could smell iron in the air.

“Do you think we ought to head down there now?” James asked.

Art removed him hand from atop of hers. “I guess we should,” he replied.

In unison, the two of them unfolded their legs and hoisted their bags onto their shoulders. Without another word they commenced their decent down into the valley of death.

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